Physics courses inspired by “good games” help attract high school students to careers in STEM

Physics courses inspired by “good games” help attract high school students to careers in STEM

The strategies do not just work with college students, as Rast has demonstrated. In 2019, the State of Alabama mandated that all public high schools begin offering at least one computer science course by the 2020-21 school year. The same year, Rast developed her Coding with Physics course and a summer seminar to introduce it to high school physics instructors. The course incorporates computer science training with effective methods of physics instruction to help students persevere and succeed in a discipline that is crucial for success in STEMM courses in college. College-level physics is a requirement for medical school and many other health professions, for instance. In 2020, nearly all physics courses, along with the rest of the university’s offerings, transitioned to remote or hybrid status. “We found these strategies useful in maintaining student engagement in other courses during COVID-19,” Rast said. “Studies show that a strong foundation in introductory physics is incredibly important in the path toward a successful career in STEMM,” Rast said. “It allows students to develop an understanding of how the world works through physical principles. However, traditional lecture-based modes of instruction and other widely used methods, such as interactive engagement, have been shown in the literature to have a detrimental impact on engagement and self-efficacy of women and minorities.”

Strong foundation for successful careers

Rast leads the Distance-Accessible Physics Education Project in the Department of Physics. She was certified in gameful learning a few years ago and first incorporated the philosophy into her distance-accessible Physics 201 course in 2016. The department has experienced strong enrollment growth in its online offerings during the past five years — the total number of students enrolled reached 2,803 in 2020, compared with 243 in 2015. Rast’s Physics 201 online course had 29 students when first offered in fall 2016 and 183 students by spring 2019. Meanwhile, DWF rates — the percentage of initially enrolled students who later dropped or withdrew from the course or received a failing grade — fell from more than 22 percent to roughly 7.5 percent. “We have so many talented students in our state who are interested in STEMM careers,” Rast said. “To develop that talent, we need to offer high-quality physics instruction in a way that promotes self-efficacy in STEMM and empowers a more diverse student population.”

“I strongly believe, based on my own experiences, that the reasoning process used in model development is very beneficial to students at the earliest possible stage of their education,” Rast said. “Computational physics helps students learn coding and data-literacy skills early on, in a way that promotes lifelong learning and allows them to remain nimble as the world and technology change.” During the inaugural Coding with Physics workshop in summer 2019, teachers learned to use Python programming skills and online tools such as Jupyter Notebooks and Google Classroom to bring physics computational models into their classrooms. That successful pilot led the Alabama State Department of Education to ask the Department of Physics “to develop standards for a new Coding with Physics high school course that would act as science credit but will also meet the new computer science requirement for Alabama high schools,” Rast said. Rast, a Birmingham native who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees in physics at UAB, specializes in computational physics. After receiving her doctorate, she worked at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, Colorado, where she created computer models of new materials and designed new materials. She drew from her own training to develop Coding with Physics.

Beneficial at the earliest stages

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